In his preface to the first publication of William Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623, poet Ben Johnson made a prediction on the enduring legacy of Shakespeare’s works, proclaiming them as "…not of an age, but for all time".
This turned out to be an accurate prediction – in our time William Shakespeare has elevated in popularity and reputation, becoming a legendary figure in British literature. His dramatic writing is considered to be amongst the greatest ever conceived in the English language, and his works are continually performed, studied, re-interpreted and adapted the world over. His iconic comedies, romances and tragedies manage to distil the very essence of the human condition – from the dizzying heights of passion, to the lowliest depths of despair – into deeply lyrical and eloquent language.
Shakespeare’s words have provided inspiration for generations of artists in every conceivable medium, reaching far beyond its literary roots. From theatre and film to painting, sculpture and music, his influence has affected all facets of modern culture. This enduring appeal can be put down to the universal nature of the subject matters that Shakespeare confronts – love, loss, power, ambition and greed are all timeless themes, and instantly relatable to anyone. This unique quality makes his stories inherently understandable and incredibly adaptable; they hold just as much relevance now as they did 400 years ago, transposing seamlessly from period settings to modern-day adaptations.
In music, Shakespeare’s influence has been profound, inspiring many great composers to write their finest works. Hector Berlioz, a particularly ardent and committed admirer of Shakespeare once described his influence as ‘…a sublime thunderclap, illuminating the most distant depths. I recognized true grandeur, true beauty, and dramatic truth’. In the world of opera, Shakespeare’s plays have proven particularly important, inspiring the creation of well over 400 separate works. It is easy to see why – the vividly drawn characters, lyrical, pulse-driven language and bold, dramatic narrative trajectories translate seamlessly from the theatre to the opera-house.
Shakespeare 400 with the LSO
In a special series of concerts marking the quartercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in April 1616, the LSO will explore some of the greatest music inspired by his words. The series opens with Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Tue 16 Feb. Gianandrea Noseda will conduct two separate programmes; the first features Tchaikovsky’s iconic Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture alongside Strauss’ Macbeth and Smetana’s Richard III (Thu 25 Feb). The season comes to a climactic close with Berlioz’s monumental Romeo and Juliet Suite, widely considered to be the composer’s greatest symphonic achievement (Sun 28 Feb). Throughout January 2016 our series of BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts focused on great chamber works inspired by Shakespeare, with ensembles including the Gould Piano Trio and the BBC Singers.
Shakespeare 400 is part of a wider cultural initiative taking part in London over 2016. To celebrate, 20 cultural institutions based in and around Greater London have come together in partnership with the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s College London.